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Bring Your Old Car Into the Future with These Smart Add-Ons

Graphic: Shep McAllister

New cars are filled with useful tech, from Apple’s CarPlay to backup cameras in the rearview mirror. But if you’re still driving an older model, don’t rush to sell your car just yet. Here are a few “smart” accessories that can modernize your ride.


Unlock Tons of Useful Data with an OBD-II Adapter

Photo: Automatic
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You may not realize this, but if your car was manufactured in the last 20 years, it has an on-board diagnostics (OBD) computer built in. It generates a ton of data that allows you to track your fuel economy, figure out where you parked, diagnose the check engine light, and a whole lot more—you just need an adapter to turn that data into something readable. And these days, there are plenty of OBD-II adapters that will send that data right to an app on your smartphone.

Our own Eric Ravenscraft wrote about this at length on Lifehacker, so I won’t repeat him here—suffice to say that you can get a pretty decent OBD-II adapter for just over $20 (just be sure to get the Wi-Fi model if you want to use it with an iPhone). If you’re willing to spend a bit more, this ~$50 model from ScanTool refreshes more often and doesn’t use as much battery. The holy grail of OBD-II simplicity, though, is a device called Automatic, which costs $99 and comes with its own app—though it seems the device is in a bit of a transition period, with the old model only available from third-party sellers and the new model still in production for early 2019. Grab whatever one fits your budget and is compatible with your car, and check out Lifehacker’s guide for more info on how to set it up.

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Add Alexa with a Bluetooth Receiver

Image: Roav
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You probably already know you can add an FM transmitter, Bluetooth receiver, or cassette tape adapter to your car and play music from your phone. But those are so 2005—voice assistants are the future, and thankfully, a few manufacturers have already created plug-in Alexa adapters for your ride.

Anker’s ~$40 Roav Viva is one of the most popular. Just plug it into your cigarette lighter, and you can ask Alexa to give you directions, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, or play music over Bluetooth. (If you don’t have Bluetooth in your car, an auxiliary cable will also work, or you can get the ~$72 Roav Viva Pro which has an FM transmitter built-in.) You can even use it to turn on your lights when you get home, if you have a house filled with smart home gadgets. Plus it charges your phone, which is a nice plus. You can read our full impressions of the Viva here.

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If you want something more navigation-focused, the $65 Garmin Speak adds Alexa to your car in much the same way, but also includes a small screen that integrates with Garmin’s turn-by-turn navigation. It’s a bit more complicated to set up, since you have to route the power cable around the windshield, but our friends at Gizmodo found it easy enough. There’s also a newer, more expensive Speak Plus with a dash cam built-in.

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See Where You’re Going with a Backup Camera

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If you’ve never used a backup camera before, you have no idea what you’re missing—it makes parking and backing out of your driveway so much easier. There are countless third-party options you can add on to your car, from cheap and wired to expensive and wireless, but if you have the cash to drop, $140 gets you this wireless model from Auto-Vox that puts the screen in your rearview mirror, so you don’t have to mount an extra display on your dashboard. (Or if your car doesn’t already have a built-in display that can hook up to a third-party camera.) What you buy will have a lot to do with what you’re able to hook up in your car, but trust me—one way or the other, you want one of these.

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Quiet Your Kids with a Backseat Tablet Mount

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Okay, so this isn’t exactly a super smart accessory, but it’s cheap, and way easier than adding a DVD player to your car (does anyone even do that anymore?). I probably don’t have to explain to you what this does, but just in case: stick this $20, fully adjustable mount on the driver or passenger seat, tuck an iPad or Fire Tablet in the mount, and your kids can watch downloaded Netflix videos, play video games with an external gamepad, or do whatever it is kids do with iPads these days. Watch Twitch streams of people playing Fortnite or something? I feel old.

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Go All Out and Add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto

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Okay, so you’re more hardcore than all this. Alexa adapters and tablet mounts are child’s play, and you’re tired of sticking your phone on a car mount—you want true smartphone integration. Thankfully, that’s totally doable with an aftermarket head unit like the $520 Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX, which allows you to connect to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto wirelessly, or the slightly cheaper and wired JVC KW-V840BT. (Though, unless you’re rather handy, you’ll probably have to add a few hundred bucks for installation—so it won’t exactly be cheap.) But you’ll get a bigger screen for clearer navigation, full integration with your car’s stereo, and it’ll cost a heck of a lot less than buying a new car...for all the modern conveniences.

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About the author

Whitson Gordon

Whitson Gordon is a writer, gamer, and all-around tech nerd. He eats potato chips with chopsticks so he doesn't get grease on his mechanical keyboard.